Old maps of Australia

Old maps are fascinating. They show how the world's knowledge about Australia developed over time, from early Dutch explorers who were looking for a way to the "Spice Islands" to the English navigators who embarked on epic voyages to chart the southern continent.

The first people to visit Australia were, of course, the indigenous inhabitants who crossed the seas and the land bridges that were revealed by the last major ice age. The map of Australia looked very different back then, with much more dry land than there is now. People were able to walk from the mainland to Tasmania. Ironically, the early European maps still showed the two landmasses joined together. Only later did navigators such as Bass (after whom the Bass Strait is named) prove they were separate islands.

Ancient maps: Terra Australis

This world map (also called a "planisphere" because it is not flat rectangular map) was made in 1587 by Rumold Mercator. Rumold was the son of famous Flemish mapmaker Gerardus, who invented the now famous "Mercator projection" method of mapping the world on a flat rectangle. Like most ancient maps, this one was based on a compilation of information from a number of sources, and the mapmaker did not visit any of the far shores depicted.

You will notice the name "Terra Australis" given to the landmass at the bottom of the map. This means simply "southern land". It appears to be made up of guesswork and actual sightings of land, with Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand all thought to be part of the one gigantic continent. Some parts of Australia are accurate, such as where northern Western Australia and north Queensland are shown to the south of Java and New Guinea (outlined in green on the right and left sides of the map respectively). An overscale Gulf of Carpentaria is shown between the two northern reaches of Australia.

Ancient 1587 world map showing Terra Australis by Rumold Mercator

Old maps: New Holland in the 17th and 18th centuries

By the 1600's and early 1700's European explorers had begun to chart a more accurate map of Australia, realising that it was a new continent separate from Antarctica and other "southlands". The Dutch were among the first Europeans to visit Australia, sometimes blown off-course on their way to their colonies in Java (now Indonesia). The first authenticated landing by Europeans in Australia was by Dutchman Willem Janszoon in 1606. As a result, and early name for Australia was "New Holland".

This map from 1659 by the Dutch cartographer Joan Blaeu is based on a compilation of Dutch explorations in the first half of the 17th century. It shows detail of northern Australia and the Western Australian coast (being the parts of the continent closest to the Dutch territories in Indonesia), parts of Tasmania, and the east coast of New Zealand. The map-maker seems unsure of whether Australia is joined to New Guinea or not.

old map of Australia from 1659 by Dutch explorers

This old 18th century map, made in 1756 by French mapmaker Didier Robert de Vaugondy, shows a partly explored coastline of Australia and an incomplete New Zealand. There has not been a lot of information added in the nearly 100 years since the Dutch map above. The smooth line of the east coast is a "hypothetical" map - it was drawn to fill in unknown parts. Interestingly, the map assumes Tasmania is joined to the mainland, and that the islands of Vanuatu (the outward bulge at the top right) are also part of Australia. The map is labelled "Nouvelle Hollande".

Old 1756 map of Australia by French mapmaker Robert de Vaugondy

This old French map of Australia from 1801 is more accurate, with the whole coastline now explored. Some of the map does not look like a modern map of Australia, such as the bottom right side being lopsided compared with the bottom left coast of what is now Western Australia, and Cape York in Queensland being underscale.

Old 1801 map of Australia by French mapmakers